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A gas drilling rig in the Fayetteville Shale near Quitman, Ark. (AP file photo/Mike Wintroath)

A Natural History of the Fayetteville Shale Play

By Zach Koppang | Shale Play Media

As natural history will show, events happen in cycles. Weather, economics, regional conflict can each be identified by certain cycles. As technology continues to advance at an exponential rate, new industries are burgeoning, capitalizing on the cycles of the earth’s natural history and the resources that have been locked away in, for example, shale formations.

The formation of shale is the result of clay and various other organic matters that settle into layers which are compressed with time. It wasn’t until recent years that advances in technology have allowed mining of natural gas that has been trapped hundreds of feet underground.

The search for and the exploitation of such untapped resources is growing parallel to the advancing technology, and new areas are being explored. This search however, is the result of billions of years of cyclical change, leading industry leaders into the current economic cycle of hydraulic fracturing. One such reserve has maintained its title as a cost-effective and viable resource, despite fluctuating projections, the Fayetteville Shale Play is an important region in the natural gas market.

The geological history of Arkansas andthe Fayetteville shale play is rich, in the drama of its formation and in the resources left over from millenniums of incessant changes and inevitable collisions.

Arkansas’ journey began billions of years ago when the earth had begun to settle and cool into the molten cored planet it is today. As the earth’s crust formed into continents, what is now Arkansas was beginning to inherit its current characteristics from deep below the earth’s surface, where evidence of violence exists, the remainder of active volcanoes from billions of years ago.

The area didn’t spit fire from the center of the earth for long, though. A majority of the state’s history had been spent below sea level at varying depths, depending on the geological age. The former ocean shores of Arkansas played a crucial role in the development and the formation of resources that are being mined there today, such as natural gas.

As history progressed and as life waxed and waned with history, the Ozark region, a warm and shallow sea floor, began to collect sediment and other elements. Southern Arkansas became home to a deep ocean basin where clay and sediment, eroding from neighboring land formations, slowly accumulated at the bottom and settled in for its long transformation into shale.

What is now known as the North American continent pushed itself through tumultuous ages, billions of years in the making, before colliding with other shifting continental land masses, further influencing the future of the state. Arkansas had been attacked on three different fronts and the deep ocean ridge of the state’s Southern regions were being forced to close.

Europe and Africa collided with North America from the East, forming the Appalachian mountain range. From the South came another ancient continent, twisting and curling tectonic plates into various forms, pressing the Ouachita Mountains of Southern Arkansas into existence. The land had slowly become part of the single massive land mass known as Pangaea. The original stature of recently formed mountains eroded into the shallow seas of Northern Arkansas. Clay and various sedimentary particles continued to settle along the ocean floor. Once again, shale had begun its transformation under the still weight of prehistoric time.

As planetary change marched on through the millennia, the continents shifted and moved away from each other, on the way to where they sit today. While the land changed, life would also ebb and flow with the sands of time. Species flourished until circumstances dictated otherwise. Plants, reptiles, birds and dinosaurs lived and died, some fossils of which can still be found preserved in the stone in the Southwestern region of Arkansas.

These periods of extinction helped usher in Arkansas’ first human inhabitants. The lush forests and various overhanging rock formations provided the necessary sustenance and shelter needed for survival. The presence of chert, a compacted rock made mostly of microcrystalline quartz, provided early humans the materials necessary to make tools. Human remains and tools have been found consistently in the Northeastern region of the state, some dating back more than 10,000 years.

As the first inhabitants moved across the land, the continents shifted with them. As humans transitioned from nomadic hunters into agricultural communities, the earth’s crust and faults curled and folded onto and over each other, forming the most active fault line in North America, the New Madrid Seismic zone.

The zone includes the Northeastern part of Arkansas and a portion of Missouri. In the early 1800’s thousands of earthquakes had been recorded, at least four of which, experts suspect, registered an eight on the Richter scale. This seismic activity caused further splitting and fissuring of the earth’s crust, which continues to this day. The frequent seismic activity is evidence of the land continuing to shift toward the future while its present inhabitants continue tapping into the resources of prehistoric past.

The oceans that formerly covered the state provided the proper environment for life to live and to die, leaving themselves to accumulate on an ancient ocean floor. As the fault lines of Arkansas scraped by each other, the deep oceanic trench that had been collecting matter and sediment for billions of years was finally trapped, fusing the elements within carbonate rock and clay, forming what is currently known as the Fayetteville shale play.

Today the Fayetteville shale play is proving itself to be a very profitable venture in the natural gas mining industry. The state of Arkansas has and continues to conduct thorough research, keeping pace with the quickly expanding industry, and maintaining an open dialogue with its residents and oil companies alike. Arkansas’ natural history as well as its recent history displays the history and a glimpse into the future of an industry as a whole.

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